Charles Long of Sycamore leads an active life. He mows the grass, weeds his garden, goes kayaking and bowling, and he enjoys going to museums and rooting for the Cubs with his three children, two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Long is a 104-year-old World War II veteran. He joined the US Army reserves before the attack on Pearl Harbor and was called into action. During his time in service, he trained all-black segregated troops in Savanna, Illinois, disposed of ammunition in Egypt and was a commanding officer at an ammunitions depot in Italy. He remained in the Army Reserves until he retired as a colonel in 1973.
MidWeek reporter Katrina Milton met with Long to discuss his military service and how he stays young.
Milton: What was life like growing up?
Long: I grew up in North Platte, Nebraska. We lived on a farm, and I went to grade school on a pony from first to eighth grades. There was no kindergarten because the kids were too small to ride on the horse. My younger brother and I were the first to go on to high school. Most went up to eighth grade and that was it. My dad got us a Model-T Ford to drive 5 miles from our home into town.
Milton: How and when did you join the Army?
Long: After high school, I went to college and then I volunteered with the Army. I volunteered with the National Guard as a reserve officer one year in advance before Pearl Harbor. We were called into action. I was going to do my year or two of service, but then the attack at Pearl Harbor happened [on Dec. 7, 1941]. Pearl Harbor was a complete surprise to us, we lost a lot of troops and ships and boats. Remembering what happened at Pearl Harbor made our fight worthwhile.
Milton: What did you do as a reserve officer?
Long: I was sent to school for company administration and to train selectees out of Chicago in Savanna, Illinois. They were all black, because the Army was segregated at that time. This was all prior to Pearl Harbor. When Pearl Harbor happened, it was a complete shock. I was moved to active duty and was sent overseas.
Milton: Where were you sent and what did you do?
Long: From Savanna, Illinois, I was sent to Egypt to an ammunitions station with the British 8th Army. The German army was coming, trying to get into Alexandria, Egypt. The 8th army was trying to stop them. My job was to pick up excess ammunition gathered from the ground with a British officer. There was a lot, all kinds of ammunition. We used Egyptian civilians to do the labor work. We would gather up the ammunition all day and at night, set it off.
Milton: How did you set the ammunition off?
Long: We had a fuse, and we had three to five minutes to get out of the way. We were lighting up 50 to 100 tons of ammunition, so the explosion would get pretty big. The smoke was like an atom bomb. When we lit the fuse, we left the Jeep running and ran out of there. We did that every day from early spring until May. The American army was coming in from the other direction, from Casablanca. In May, I went back to the American army. I was with the American Army in Casablanca from May until September 1942.
Milton: Where were you sent then?
Long: I became the commanding officer of an ammunitions depot in Italy. We received all of the ammo for Italy off of ships. We separated the ammo into different grades and calibers for the Army troops. I stayed for two years there until we moved up the boot of Italy. In Italy, nothing was ahead of us except Germans. You see, Mussolini and Hitler were buddies, so Italy and Germany were friends.
Milton: Did you know about what was happening throughout Europe during the war?
Long: No, we didn’t travel and fight throughout Europe, we stayed in Italy. There were no concentration camps in Italy. We didn’t know anything like that was going on.
Milton: Were you married before the war?
Long: Some soldiers were getting married before they left. I had a girlfriend, Mary Maxine Haney, and she waited for me. We wrote letters back and forth. We went together before the war, and we married right away when I returned. I returned September 1945, we married in November. We were married from 1945 until 2008, 63 years. We got along well together, I don’t remember any fights.
Milton: How did you meet your wife?
Long: My wife was the daughter of my professor. I met her at a fall dance. The University of Nebraska’s engineering department always had a dance, but there weren’t too many engineers, 20 maybe. I wasn’t a very good dancer, and I planned on not going. A group got together, and everyone had a date except me. The chairman of the department, my professor, had a daughter. One of us had to take her to the dance or else. So I wound up with her. When it came time for the next dance, I didn’t want anyone else taking her or going with her. I called her up and asked her again.
Milton: What happened when the war was over?
Long: We were told to gather up and ship out, the war was over, come home. Most people couldn’t get out fast enough, but I volunteered to stay on. I waited for things to settle down, and I joined the army as a regular army officer, not a reserve officer. When I returned home in 1945, I was stationed at the Joliet Arsenal, an ammo depot. I lived in the living quarters with my wife for two years until 1947.
Milton: When did you leave the Army?
Long: I was honorably discharged from the Army in 1947, and I worked at US Steel in South Chicago for 30 years, from January 1948 until 1978. I was still active in the US Army Reserves, though. I never got out. I retired on account of my age when I was 60 in 1973. I considered the Army to be my first job, US Steel was my second job.
Milton: Were you a member of any veterans’ organizations?
Long: My wife and I were members of many organizations through the years: the Reserve Officers, the VFW, American Legion, Retired Military Officers Association, the Military and Hospitaller Order of Saint Lazarus of Jerusalem, the Masons, Medinah Shriners, Scottish Rite and National Sojourners. We went to conferences both local and national.
Milton: How do you stay young?
Long: I’m 104 years old and I only feel like I’m 87. I drive, I kayak, I go on the treadmill. I’ve been horseback riding, I played darts, I go on vacation with the family to Wisconsin Dells and I go bowling. I’m also a Cubs fan. When they won last year, I saw the parade live in Chicago. I try to eat the right amount of meats and vegetables, but I do like to go out every so often for a hamburger. I may be 104, but I’m still young.